OK: this post isn’t about creativity, pottery, drawing, or pattern & patch as a project. But it’s an important one about the moment of history we’re in, and using our hands to do what we can.
Earlier this month, I found myself in northern France — after hearing a very direct, very compelling ask somewhere in the middle of a Guilty Feminist podcast: if you have any spare time at all, the ‘Help Refugees’ project is hard at work in Calais — it’s not far from London, and they could do with your help.
I booked into the local youth hostel and stayed for a week.
Here’s some of what I learned while I was there:
1. Northern France is not getting any easier. Calais is probably most well known for ‘the jungle’ — where, at a peak of media coverage for the refugee crisis, thousands of displaced people lived. The jungle no longer exists as it did then, but there are still thousands of people displaced and sleeping rough every night. They’re often living in makeshift tents on the edges of industrial wastelands, hoping not to wake up to tear gas, a slashed tent or their possessions confiscated. There’s a strong police presence and most people have very limited options for where they will go, and how they will survive.
As temperatures fall, conditions for the refugees camped around Calais have, according to charities, never been worse, with many cases of hypothermia already reported.
2. You’re here in solidarity, and here to serve. In an effort to counter a dire situation with practical solutions, the Help Refugees warehouse is a buzzing beehive of activity, a new cast of people every day who show up ready to do something to help. The culture of the warehouse can feel loose at times, but here’s the constant: in every judgment and decision, the people you’re serving come first, and you serve them with dignity, solidarity and steadfastness. In the section dedicated to checking tents: Would you feel comfortable looking someone in the eye and handing this to them as their home? In the section dedicated to checking the bread before it’s distributed: Is this good enough to be served in a restaurant? The donated supplies that aren’t practical for use are added to the on-site charity shop for visitors to purchase.
3. "Start where you are, do what you can”. There is a corner of the warehouse for every secret talent that a volunteer could have. I discovered that I’m not much good for taking nails out of pallets of firewood, and will win no prizes for sewing holes in jackets — but my love of constructing and repairing tents, and of buzzing communal cooking, came in handy. My favourite days were the ones spent in the Refugee Community Kitchen onsite, music blasting as we sliced thousands of onions, or sorted loaves of bread. While I was there, the team made about 1000 meals a day. After a buzzing day, the meals, food, firewood and clothes all leave the warehouse in vans in the afternoon. If you’re staying for a week or more, you have the option of going out to join distributions to some of the camps (but don’t have to, if it’s not your thing).
4. You’ll meet incredible people. The first people I met at the youth hostel were Anne and Ann. Ann was a first-time volunteer like me — we quickly discovered we loved the same books and same topics of nerdy conversation. Anne was seventy-something, and came to Calais once a month. She was a keen bike rider, a student of Latin, spent most of her time in Calais in the sewing section, repairing zippers and holes in sleeping bags. Every person I met after that was just as kind, generous, interesting and thoughtful — and lunch at the communal tables was a melting pot of travellers, journalists, students, psychologists, criminologists, personal assistants, chefs, empty-nesters and long-term volunteers. In the midst of a pretty confronting situation, there’s a light-heartedness that everyone takes on. In the midst of a hard day, the rampant pun use or cheeky notes in the bathroom will make you smile.
If you’re in UK / Europe: get there and pitch in. It only takes a moment to sign up to volunteer here (and feel free to write and ask any questions about the experience).
Donate for Help Refugees to buy the most-needed supplies. It’s cold in Calais at the moment — and some extra dollars will help them purchase jackets, sneakers and socks that will keep displaced people warm through the below-zero nights. Or, you can donate to help Refugee Community Kitchen make delicious meals for displaced men, women and children here. (This is what you’re all getting as Christmas presents this year.)
PS: When you need a moment to breathe, Calais itself can be quite beautiful if you look for it - it treated me to one hell of a sunset on my first night: